A Knave's Wager by Loretta Chase
Lilith Davenant is known for her icy temper and for the beautiful niece's she has introduced to London society. Since her disastrous marriage and her husband's death Lilith has dedicated her life to making decent matches for her young charges. She blames Julian Wyndhurst, the Marquess of Brandon, for her husband's dissolute lifestyle and is furious to discover that he died leaving Julian a massive debt, putting her ability to host her nieces in jeopardy. On her way to London she encounters a traveler stranded on the side of the road and helps him to safety, only to discover that she has saved her nemesis. Julian finds the frigid widow quite the challenge but a rake like him has no chance with such a dragon of society. When he arrives in London it is to find that his cousin Roger has agreed to marry his French mistress, Esme, and the family believes it is his duty to get him out of the predicament. He visits Esme and agrees to a wager; if he can seduce Lilith in 8 weeks or less she will leave Roger alone and if he cannot then he will leave Esme and Roger alone.
Julian finds ways to be near Lilith and while at first it is an attempt to seduce her he begins to sense how special this woman is and how different she is than he had expected. And Lilith can't help but be charmed by Julian and discovers hidden depths to him that change her perspective of him. And for the first time in her life her body is awakening and desiring a man's touch while still remaining wary of trusting him completely. While Lilith and Julian are flirting, her niece and Roger are also forming a close attachment and he realizes he made a mistake by proposing to his mistress. Sensing that Julian and Lilith need a little shove, Cecily devises a plan to get the two of them alone, but Julian's conscience rears it's head. When Lilith discovers the truth about the wager she is crushed and it will take all of Julian's charm to convince her that he can make her happy.
There is no doubt that Chase is an immensely talented author who writes believable and likable characters who form relationships that draw the reader in from the beginning. Lilith was perfectly proud and flawed and vulnerable at the same time in a way that made the reader like her and root for her undoing, but not her downfall. Julian was the perfect man to help her discover happiness because he wanted her to maintain her own sense of self while unloosening enough to live a full life. He was undoubtedly a rake and while Chase did a wonderful job of redeeming him he kept enough of the bad boy persona to remain enticing. Both of them were secret do gooders and I liked that they had that in common and enjoyed reading about their time together, especially after Lilith had loosened up and allowed herself to be open with Julian.
The wager was obviously disconcerting to me but Julian was adequately remorseful about taking it and it was clear that his feelings for Lilith meant far more to him than winning a wager and he did ended up making the right decision about everything. Julian and Lilith had undeniable chemistry that burned up many of the pages, especially since it was left smoldering for so long, and Chase did a good job describing their eventual explosive coupling, but it could have been better. The best part of it was that it truly showed Lilith moving beyond her past and opening herself up to life and Julian was adequately appreciative of the trust she placed in him. I also liked the romance between Roger and Cecily; it was cute and short and they were also remarkably well suited for each other.
Rating: Chase has worked her magic again in this novella with very well developed characters who had a great relationship with each other.